In a visit to Yale Monday, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge outlined changes the Bush administration has made to visa policies for international students at a luncheon for the presidents of dozens of the nation’s top universities.

The presidents are on campus this week for a two-day conference of the Association of American Universities. Ridge said the Department of Homeland Security, along with other government agencies, has been working with university presidents to review and reform U.S. visa-granting policies that affect graduate and undergraduate study in the United States for foreign students.

Ridge, who spoke at a lunch at Berkeley College Monday that was closed to the press, said the federal government has been working to protect the nation while still attracting international students.

“We want the doors to be open wide,” Ridge told the News as he left Berkeley. “We want to make it easier for graduate and undergraduate students to get into the country.”

Since last fall, the federal government decreased students’ waiting period for background checks from about three months to about three weeks and enhanced communication with U.S. consular offices abroad, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Verdery said.

Verdery, who travelled with Ridge Monday, said the changes to the visa policies are part of a wide policy review that the Department of Homeland Security began last fall after universities, corporations and scientists complained that security measures implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were preventing students and professionals from entering the country. He said policy changes made last year have expedited background checks for international students.

“We’ve heard the message loud and clear from university presidents that our policies were having a negative impact on students,” Verdery said. “Today’s foreign student may be tomorrow’s foreign leader, and having them exposed to U.S. policy, culture and society is a plus.”

Verdery said the implementation of photographing and fingerprinting at the nation’s ports and an overhaul of security clearance software has allowed the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department and Congress, to give students priority for visa interviews. About 98 percent of background checks performed this year were completed within 30 days, according to a State Department report released this fall.

Yale Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Richard Jacob said Monday he was encouraged by reforms made to the visa process and hopes the government will clear international students for longer stays, which currently are limited to one year. Federal officials have expressed interest in extending security clearances for a student’s multi-year course of study.

“I think the entire university community feels that the Department of Homeland Security has been very open to our concerns,” Jacob said.

The visa reform issue has topped Yale President Richard Levin’s agenda over the past year, and last spring Levin and other administrators pressured the Bush administration to reform the visa process in order to attract more foreign students to the United States.

Yale’s Graduate School saw its international applications drop by 19 percent last year, with particularly sharp decreases in applications from China, Germany and Korea. Nationally, applications to graduate schools have dropped by 30 percent compared with last year, according to a survey of 126 universities released last month by the Council of Graduate Schools. The report cites a number of factors that are thought to have led to the decline, chief among them the tightened U.S. visa process.

Yale Center for International and Area Studies Associate Director Nancy Ruther, who attended a meeting of faculty members with Verdery yesterday, said visa policy reforms will make it easier for the YCIAS to arrange for post-doctoral students and lecturers to come to the University. But she said the federal government must continue to make the process more transparent for students.

“In the months after Sept. 11, poor policies and poor public relations made student applications and recruitment difficult,” Ruther said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to dig us out of that hole.”

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he was encouraged by the federal government’s actions and thinks the new policies will benefit students.

“I think things have gone a lot better in the past year,” Salovey said. “We have a very responsive partner in the federal government.”

The university presidents are in New Haven through today for a biannual conference of the AAU, an association of 62 research universities in the United States and Canada. In addition to visa reforms, the conference features sessions on university-community relations, the reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act and other national higher education issues, AAU spokesperson Barry Toiv said.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said AAU sessions Monday focused on university-community collaborations and showcased Yale’s work with New Haven.

“I think it is fair to say that in higher education Yale is a model for how a university can contribute to its host community,” Conroy said.

Other AAU meetings Monday focused on ways to maintain America’s prominence in science and technology research, said Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon, who is attending the conference.

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